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Theology and Translations: Considering John Henry Newman and the Oxford Movement

September 25, 2010

A few days ago the pope visited the UK, the first time he has visited as a head of state since the Reformation. One of the more significant events that occurred while he was here was his beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman (1801-1890), a step towards recognizing Newman as a saint. Newman began his career as a relatively low-church Anglican clergyman in the nineteenth century, and was an influential figure in the budding Oxford Movement (i.e., Tractarians), a reform movement within the Anglican Church that placed great emphasis on the church fathers. By the end of his life Newman had converted to Catholicism, which perhaps some had been suspecting all along in light of his interest in the church fathers.

One of the lasting benefits of the Oxford Movement was the series of translations of primary texts they left behind. Investigating the translation technique involved in their translation series, known as the Library of the Fathers of the Church, reveals certain features of their theological concerns. I will give two examples of this phenomenon. Reading some of these early translations can be a frustrating experience because they are painfully literal. For example, P. E. Pusey’s translation of vol. 1 of Cyril of Alexandria’s Commentary on the Gospel of John (download here) follows the extremely complicated and convoluted sentence structure of the Greek, resulting in tortured English prose. I often found myself having to read passages more than once to get a decent sense of the English translation. In fact, Pusey’s translation received such bad reviews that he never completed the second v0lume of the Johannine commentary. That task fell to another scholar who produced a more readable translation (downloadable here).

Recently I came across a possible explanation for the literal translation philosophy used in these volumes. Around 1881, looking back after four decades of the Oxford Movement, Newman commented upon the reason for the literalness of the translations. The Oxford series was the first time many of these patristic texts had ever been put into English. According to Newman, both Catholics and Protestants at the time suspected the translators of introducing into the Fathers their own “religious views”. One suspects that the suspicion was more on the part of Protestants who feared possible Catholic teachings in the patristic texts. At any rate, Newman said that the translators strove for exacting literalness in their translations so as to allay such concerns from their critics. Newman’s comments on this can be found in the preface to his second edition (1881) of the Athanasius volume in the series (the first edition was translated around 1841-1844). You can download the volume here.

The second example concerns Newman’s own translations and life story. Benjamin John King has recently surveyed Newman’s love for the Alexandrian tradition in his Newman and the Alexandrian Fathers: Shaping Doctrine in Nineteenth-Century England (Oxford 2009). King carefully studied Newman’s revisions in the later edition of his Athanasian translations, and found that there was a theological agenda behind the changes. In the words of one reviewer, the revisions “reflect [Newman’s] desire to square the Alexandrian patriarch with later, Latin orthodoxy of a peculiarly neo-Thomist flavor. Some of his emendations and insertions are quite bald and serve to inoculate Athanasius from heretical missteps several centuries on the horizon” (Charles M. Stang, Journal of Early Christian Studies 18 [2010], 341). According to King, this attempt was but a part of Newman’s own theological progression over the course of his life, which he outlines as occurring in three phases. In phase one Newman’s heros were pre-Nicene figures such as Origen. In phase two, his heroes became the preeminent Nicenes Athanasius and Cyril. In the final phase, following his conversion to Roman Catholicism, Newman relied heavily upon Augustine’s Trinitarian reflections.

These reflections reveal that translations are by no means neutral or objective, but are always bound up with interpretive decisions on the part of the translator. No one can entirely extricate himself from his own prejudices, and, even if he could do so, expressing an original text in a new language necessarily requires a degree of interpretation. In light of this inescapable reality, the call should always be to return to the original texts. Translations are a great blessing and I am a hearty advocate of making more of them, but they are always one step removed from the original text.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. September 27, 2010 7:43 pm

    Interest blog, Matt. I had to read Nockel’s book, The Oxford Movement in Context, several years ago. Sadly, I was lost in its arguments and ended up reading several reviews in academic journals to figure it out.

    But with Pusey’s translation, it seems like a principle for textual criticism is confirmed: the more difficult translation is probably the earliest.

  2. September 28, 2010 7:56 am


    I remember with fondness that class in which we read that book. I also remember being lost in the argument. And I remember Frank Turner’s over-psychologized biography of John Henry Newman, in which he argued that Newman was a repressed homosexual. Good times…

  3. October 1, 2010 8:43 pm

    Good to hear from you, Aaron. Hope you’re well!

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